Retransmission Consent Is Super Mess for Super Bowl City

There is no doubt that the citizens of New England, and in particular Boston, are focused on the Patriots going to and winning the Super Bowl.  What they didn’t realize is that Washington, D.C., and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) retransmission consent rules, almost stopped them from watching the Super Bowl.  According to a January 26, 2012, article in the Union Leader, Barbara Villandry, a retired communications professor and Nashua-area Pats fan, "is among 200,000 DirecTV subscribers who may be blacked out from watching Super Bowl XLVI, the result of an ongoing dispute between the satellite provider and Sunbeam Television Corporation, which owns the NBC affiliate in Boston. A conflict over retransmission consent fees has prevented DirecTV customers in Greater Boston and New Hampshire from watching NBC since Jan. 14.”

Fortunately, an agreement was reached, but the blackout threat is a reminder of how Washington policies have hindered the free market. How did Boston DirecTV customers get to this point?  The Communications Act of 1934 was amended in 1992 to give broadcasters an advantage in negotiations with monopoly cable providers, granting broadcasters the right to choose between guaranteed carriage or insisting that multichannel video programming distributors (cable and satellite providers) obtain and pay for a station’s consent to retransmit the station to local subscribers.  Needless to say, the television landscape has changed drastically since 1992.  The fact is that there are no longer cable monopolies and broadcasters have a choice among many providers such as cable, satellite and fiber optic networks.  This has given broadcasters the upper hand in negotiations. Broadcasters have used this advantage to force cable and satellite providers to pay outrageous fees or carry extra channels on their basic tiers.  This lopsided leverage has caused program blackouts until a deal is reached (such as what is happening in Boston) and  a huge increase in what customers pay as broadcasters pass these fees as higher rates to customers.